Play It Again Sam.
I began my day walking to the ground in the rain, discussing with Jon and Lord Lowe how this was the least apprehensive I had ever been before an Arsenal v United game in living memory, so low were my expectations. I would wake up some 23 hours after the 12.45 kick off, fully clothed, face down in my mate's garage in Thornton Heath with an evian bottle full of urine inches from my head. It was that kind of a day.
The Manager predictably kept his cards close to his chest vis a vis his 'doubtful' players, even more predictably they pretty much all played. Almunia had recovered from a stomach virus, William Gallas was over his hamstring injury (though visibly grimaced on several occasions during the match), Sagna soldiered on through an ankle problem and Theo Walcott played in spite of a dicky shoulder. Kolo Toure was ruled fit enough for the bench after participating in three separate pie eating competitions on Friday afternoon. He won them all. Abou Diaby was played in a withdrawn striker role to support Nicklas Bendtner, tasked with the thankless pursuit of leading the line against the best central defensive pair in Europe. He did so manfully all afternoon.
The atmosphere inside the ground was pensive following the minutes silence in acknowledgement of Rememberance Sunday. That sense of pessimistic energy manifested itself much larger in the opening 90 seconds. Silvestre woefully underhit a backpass with Rooney solicitously hunting down, Almunia had his usual brain abberation against United by inexplicably picking it up. (Amazingly the linesman did not flag for a backpass and Coward Webb took a good few seconds for his brain to register, which set the tone for some appalling officiating). Anderson's indirect free kick was blocked, the ball falling to Michael Carrick whose bobbling shot whistled inches wide. United would have the ball in the net soon afterwards, as was something of a pattern for the first half, neither Nasri or Walcott made any attempt to track back with United's wingers pushed high up the pitch. Ronaldo cut the ball back to the impressive Ji Sung Park, who dummied for Rooney, Almunia palmed out his low shot leaving Berbatov to slot into an empty net. Fortunately, the sulky Bulgarian had strayed offside. Arsenal looked nervy and in need of a catalyst. Perhaps ironically, it was ire that would lift the atmosphere in the stadium. Rooney srpinted forty yards to hack Theo Walcott from behind, Coward Webb amazingly did not book him. When Gallas misjudged a challenge on Evra three minutes later, Webb was quick with the card. Both were bookable offences, but the polar incidences elucidated just how terrible Webb was. He seemed unable or unwilling to apply the laws of the game. That's not an especially endearing quality for a referee to have. The man is also the most appalling bottle job in the Premiership. This I remind you is the man who, instead of admitting a case of mistaken identity, insisted to the nation that Emmanuel Adebayor aimed a punch at Frank Lampard when the cameras show to millions that the phantom punch was never landed. Men of that ineptitude and arrogance have no place in games like this. Every single thing about this game was such a positive advertisement for Premiership football, except for the referee.
Motivated by the new found defiance in the crowd, Arsenal began to probe United in the most atypical way. Firstly, Clichy whipped in a gorgeous crossfrom the elft which had just a smidgen too much pace on for Bendtner to make a true connection with his forehead in front of goal. Four minutes later, an almost identical chance went begging when Nasri teased and taunted Gary Neville, ushered in a sumptuous cross, Diaby just flicked it, taking it away from Bendtner's head by inches wth Walcott lurking at the back post. Once again, United would look unsure of themselves in the air, van der Sar scuffed a punch from a Fabregas corner which fell straight to the feet of Abou Diaby, who in turn scuffed his shot wide. The sense of unknown quantity seemed to be the most threatening weapon Arsenal contained in their cannon. For any manager preparing for a game at the Emirates, I can't think too many focus their defenders rigidly on clearing crosses and set pieces. But once again, Arsenal's lack of defensive nous from the wings was nearly their undoing. Once again Ronaldo was clear on the right hand side with Nasri still far up the pitch, he pulled a ball back to Rooney who surprisingly skied from close range. Had he scored you've the feeling we would be ruminating over a different result today.
The Gunners would once again call upon an old foe, the set piece, to bring the game's breakthrough moment, Fabregas swung a free kick in from the right, Berbatov's clearing header was not emphatic enough, falling to Nasri on the edge of the box, he controlled and brilliantly swivelled his body to deliver a crisp, low left foot shot, which was deflected past van der Sar by Gary Neville. Nasri scored an almost identical goal against Twente back in August, if memory serves his equaliser against Everton was also a similar, low shot through a crowd of bodies. There is no serendipity in this, Nasri is intelligent enough to know that if he can hit a good, low shot into a crowded box, the chances are a deflection might just go his way. You can't say Arsenal haven't needed a player like that for some time. There was more excitement in tow too, firstly Almunia palmed away Park's low shot when, once again, Walcott refused to track back. If that's Eboue, he's lazy and uncommitted, when it's Walcott it's 'defensive naivety.' But Arsenal were in the ascendancy and when Bendtner played Diaby through, the gangly Frenchman roared through the centre of the United defence and towards goal only to be taken out by michael Carrick. Unbelievably Coward Webb did not give the foul. It might have left him with a difficult decision as to whether Carrick would have remained on the pitch, Howard the Coward would not have any of that. He was roundly booed off at half time and with good cause.
Arsenal clearly had the message to begin the second half quickly and try to secure the second goal. In fact, straight from centre, Cesc launched the ball to a largely ineffective Walcott in an attempt to pin Evra back. The sense of urgency would pay rich dividends on 48 minutes. Following a 15 pass move, Fabregas beautifully turned Neville with a 360 degree manouvre, Walcott's run had diverted Vidic's attention, allowing Nasri to run into the space, Fabregas, whose passing was again way off kilter, delivered his first and only incisive pass of the game to Nasri, who took his shot early on the edge of the area, arcing it emphatically into the top corner. With two inexperienced strikers ahead of him, his contribution needed to be productive in the final third. Boy did he deliver. But the new found euphoria was displaced with fractured nerves seconds later. Park dinked a beautiful cross to the backpost from United's left, with Walcott again making no attempt to track back, which found Ronaldo on the backpost, fortunately he turned it wide from close range. The stadium breathed a collective sigh of relief, only to then spend the final forty minutes with stomachs clenched, fingernails chewed and nerves taut like piano string.
Another set piece nearly bought the Gunners further joy, Diaby showed superhuman determination to beat van der Sar to Fabregas' corner, only for the ball to fly over. The Gunners sat back and looked to hit on the counter and this was when the back four really came to the fore. Gallas was all steely eyes and clenched fists, clearly anguished by his thigh. Sagna too gritted his teeth and played through the pain barrier, Mikael Silvestre actually looked like an experienced centre half and Gael Clichy was, well, Gael Clichy. Denilson was also doing a superb job manning the edge of his area, not only winning tackles with gusto, but having the confidence to play in tight situations and keep the game simple for his team mates. Denilson has been inconsistent this season, but for the last couple of games he has really improved, simplifying his game slightly without the ostentatious passing. To play as well as he did in a game of this magnitude is an enormous sign of quality. Many questions have been asked of him this year, many by your esteemed writer. Well yesterday went a long way to answering some of them. Keep it up young man.
The goalkeeper as well proved to be as determined in the line of battle as those ahead of him. After he fumbled a Giggs corner,the ball fell to Carrick, who had every right to go for goal, only to be foiled by a brave, sprawling Almunia, catching a blow to the head from which he would not recover. Coward Webb quite unfairly booked Carrick who had every right to contest the loose ball and showed no malice towards Almunia. For Webb to have booked him would imply the referee felt there was intent there, therefore surely it's a red card or nothing at all? Another example of Coward Webb's appallingly half arsed refereeing. United continued to surge forwards, Song replaced Walcott, whilst Bendtner and Diaby, who had been the picture of industry all afternoon, had nothing left in the tank. Despite the invasion of blue that swarmed the Arsenal half, Fabianski had little to do other than collect a few hanging crosses, which he did commendably. On an Arsenal counter attack, Nasri jigged his way past Vidic and as he shaped to shoot, the Serbian cynically yanked his shirt. Once again Coward Webb did not respond appropriately.
But Arsenal finally cracked on 89 minutes, whereas Denilson had been economical in possession all afternoon, Song decided to aimlessly hack the ball clear. The result was it came straight back at us, Giggs' dinked cross was half headed clear by Silvestre, but only as far as Brazilian youngster Rafael. He brilliantly controlled the ball on his chest and dispatched a wicked left foot volley into the bottom corner with a raft of red and white bodies charging him down. You have to feel Gary Neville's United career is in its death throes. Almost instantly, the fourth official signalled an extra six minutes stoppage time. The nerves were stretched to breaking point as United continued to dominate possession, but the Arsenal back four, determinedly marshalled by Gallas, held firm as the bowel clenching whistles rang around the stadium. Bendtner managed to engineer one last opportunity on the counter, but with his mind and body wrakced with exhaustion, he could only turn the ball over from close range. The final whistle was greeted with delirium, a delirium which we carried into the Bank of Friendship and which served us well with our post match Guinness hours after the game had ended. My evening got a little hazy after that.
It was a game where the team needed to produce a big response, where every single man had to do his job meticulously and that is, by and large, what we got. Whilst the first half was very harum scarum and pendulous, Arsenal tightened visibly in the second half and were much more professional in their defensive duties. There was some luck that came our way, but in games between clubs this evenly matched, the victor is normally likely to be on the receiving end of some good fortune. Nasri did an excellent job of supporting the strikersand improved his defending in the second half, Diaby and Bendtner lead the line with aggression and insatiable work rate. Denilson rose to the occasion marvellously, after a shaky start, Silvestre looked the composed, experienced campaigner he should be. Sagna played on through obvious pain and Gallas looked like a great captain and a great defender again, let's hope this is a turning point in his season. Walcott was never really in the game and he neglected his responsibility to track Evra ad infinitum. He was given a standing ovation when he was substituted, I dare say had Eboue put in that display, the home support would not have been so generous. Overall it was an incredible game of football, played in the correct spirit between two heavyweight teams geared to attack. Hell, Ferguson even managed a bit of decorum in his post match prognosis. The result leaves us with few doubts about the quality of our side, but you have to question how different the results against Hull City, Fulham and Stoke City might have been had we showed even 50% of the focus and hunger showed yesterday.LD.